Why Summer Is the Best Time to Start Communications Planning

Sunshine, beaches, barbecues, the vacation you wait for all year…these are all the things that nonprofit professionals look forward to. What’s even better, most of us aren’t as busy because the constant craziness of event registrations, blog posts, interviews, and social media pushes dies down in the summer.

This calm actually makes the summer one of the most valuable times of the year for communications folks. It means we get to sit down and actually think for a moment, if we give ourselves the chance to do so.

However, I will be the first to say that the timing of this “summer” thing sort of sucks. Most communications plans run January-December, which leaves the majority of the planning to happen in November or December (also known as end-of-year-craziness-Ragnarok for nonprofit staff). For this reason, I suggest my clients shift the bulk of their planning to the summer, instead of December. You know, that time of year when you’re busy huddled under your desk crying into a donated box of White Blend wine.

This blog post will outline how you can use the summer to jump start your planning, making December suck way less. Heads up, I’ve designed some of these tips so that you can even do while on a beach (that’s called strategic planning, my friends).

Get in touch with usually busy people
Sometimes there are people who are impossible to get together with, such as board members or partner agencies. You’ll have to contend with competing vacations, but summer can be a very useful time to get in front of people whose calendars are complete madness during other times of the year.

 Read some great books
There are some incredible books about communications and marketing that will help you in your job. Read up anything by Social Media for Social Good by Heather Mansfield, Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout, The Story Wars by Jonah Sacks, and if you’re up for a book that’s VERY helpful but dry, I would recommend Strategic Communications Planning for Effective Public Relations and Marketing by Laurie Wilson. There are countless other books, so do some research and find some you think would help you in your job!

Reflect on your biggest wins of the year
Now that you have some space, take stock of the year and what went really well. What social media posts were memorable? What e-mails had the best opens? Visit your website statistics and see what pages were visited most, and what biggest channels lead to your site (social media pages, e-mails, etc.). Write these down.

Reflect on your biggest gaffes (or missed opportunities) of the year
This happens to all of us. You launch a report and forget to put a link to it on your organization’s home page, missed a deadline for submitting a session to a conference tailor-made for your organization, or didn’t start planning your giving day fundraising early enough (these are definitely not personal examples).  Write down a few of the biggest things that could be better next year.

Consider what professional development you need
The best way to get professional development funded by your organization (if you have the budget for it) is to make a long-term plan about how you want to grow. When you’re considering the next year’s communications plan, think about skills you need to develop and do some research about the best ways to do that. Is it a conference, an online course, or coaching? Something else entirely? Consider your learning priorities and make a plan.

Benchmark some metrics
One of the hardest aspects of writing a communications plan is figuring out the numbers. How many more Facebook likes should we put down? How much will we increase our website visits? Instead of coming up with a blind number, conduct a mini test for the next few months. Track the numbers you think you will include in your plan, and then check up on them every month. Here’s a blog post giving you some ideas of where to start in evaluating your communications.

And of course, there’s nothing better for your future communications planning than nachos. Definitely remember the nachos.


Powerful and Practical Social Media: Facebook for Nonprofits

Nonprofits are always struggling with getting noticed. One of the best ways to get noticed is through social media, but it’s also one of the hardest. So how do you get through the noise? Our Powerful and Practical Social Media series helps you break through to get your message heard!

What’s your purpose (on social)?

Social media gets a lot of attention from marketers, but it should only be one channel within your larger communication strategy. Consider the Hub and Spoke model where your website is the hub with all your content, and your spokes share out the information and draw people in to your website, where they can take further action. Social media is just one of your spokes, and each channel is slightly different.

Given that, consider how your “social media spoke” best supports the whole wheel. What audience is best for you to target on social media? What content do you have that’s the best fit for social? What tone fits that audience, your content, and your brand? Once you define those three things, your social media has a strategy. Next, it’s about how each channel can be optimized for that particular audience.

What do you post?

Your content is the next piece of the puzzle. Once you have your social media goals laid out, it’s about determining what content will inspire your audience to help you achieve that goal.

In terms of what types of content to post for the best engagement, think about (and write down) your typical follower. What are they interested in? What do they want to learn about or improve upon? Use that as a guide for your content.

In general, Facebook is all about visuals. Links are great, but make sure that they have a great image (or a video) attached to them. The best content on Facebook will be useful, relevant, and visually appealing. Much of this content can start on your blog, where most of your content should live.

One of my most successful Facebook posts was for one of my clients, Art with Heart. Art with Heart creates therapeutic workbooks for children and teens to help them work through trauma and grief. Given that, much of their Facebook presence was about creativity and healing. At the beginning of the year, I wrote a blog post about self-care projects to kick off 2016, and our Facebook audience loved it.

It easily became one of our most popular posts, getting shared widely and getting lots of good engagement. It also drew many new followers to us, growing our audience and potential donor base. And that was because it was useful, relevant, and it had a great image up top.

The most important aspect of your post is obviously the content. And a recent Hubspot study found that for pages with a smaller following, “with less than 10,000 followers that post more than 60 times a month receive 60% fewer clicks per post than those companies that post 5 or fewer times a month.”

When should you post? 

The most important thing to know about Facebook is that the odds are definitely NOT in your favor in terms of getting noticed. Facebook makes more money the more time people spend on Facebook, and people generally log into Facebook to see posts from their friends and family, not the pages they follow. Given that, Facebook wants to limit page content as much as possible. So, as a page, you are automatically at a disadvantage.

Every social media blog will tell you there are certain times of day that will beat the Facebook algorithm that knocks down your content. You’ll see suggestions for 4-6AM or 2-3PM or weekends, and the hard truth is that no one really knows. The best time for your content is dictated by your followers, not the algorithm. So you want to know the best time for them, which you won’t be able to know without – you guessed it – A/B testing!

The good news is that it’s free. The bad news is that it’s time consuming.

The best way to do it is to spend one month posting at one time of day on the weekdays, and another on the weekends. Once you’ve set that standard, change the times.

The important thing is to only test one variable at a time. It’s best to use time that’s far away from a major event or giving day, if possible. If it’s not possible, do your best to correct for that traffic that could skew your numbers.

Other quick tips for boosting engagement:

Pin to top

Have a post with high engagement? Pin it to the top of your page so people see an engaging post as soon as they visit your page.

Invite people who like your posts to like your Facebook page

When you have a post with high engagement, you can see who liked it, and invite them to like your page as well, so they see your future posts. It is probably one of the most effective, yet underused, features on Facebook.

Get verified

Getting your Facebook page verified is an easy and useful step to help your engagement. It’s easy to do with a phone number or letter, though some nonprofits are required to send in their articles of incorporation.

Schedule natively

The Facebook algorithm will give preferential treatment to posts that were scheduled natively on Facebook, as opposed to a third-party client, such as Hootsuite or Tweetdeck. So if you are scheduling posts for later, make sure you do it on Facebook itself, as opposed to using a third-party client.

When it comes to social media, it can seem daunting for some organizations. But with these smart tips, you’ll start to see Facebook help build successes for your nonprofit.

This is a post I wrote for Williams Whittle.

Free and Easy Data Tools for Nonprofit Marketers

Great marketing requires great data. Before you launch a new marketing campaign, it is vital to get insight into your audience, which requires research.

This blog post will walk you through my three favorite data tools that inform my nonprofit marketing.

US Census

The Census, done every ten years, is the most important data our country collects. It determines everything from funding to disaster response to the number of congressmen in every state. And all of that information is available to you.

You can easily lose yourself in census data; it’s that big. However, there are some very helpful and very simple tools you can use that aren’t quite as complex.

The Quick Facts section is comprised of the most commonly requested data that the census holds. This section is very easy to work with and especially helpful to compare and contrast different geographies.

Here is an example comparing my home town, my home state, and the entire country.

You’ll see this shows that while only about 13% of people counted are foreign-born, that number more than doubles for the city of Providence. That’s important distinction, and it might inform how my nonprofit markets to clients, such as using different languages or highlighting other cultures in our visuals.

This is just one small example of what data you can find in the census. I recommend starting in the Quick Facts section, and then dig deeper as you find helpful information.

Pew Research Center

The Pew Research Center has been collecting and sharing nonpartisan research since 2004. Their topics range from religion, to health, to social issues, to science. It is, hands down, the best free source for public opinion data out there.

They are incredibly thorough in their research, which they lay out clearly in the Methods section on their website.

Take the image on the right. This is a poll they did to research the characteristics of current smokers versus people who currently smoke.

If I were working at an anti-smoking nonprofit, and looking for targets to encourage to quit smoking, there are multiple things I could glean from this research. One would be that lower-income people are far more likely to continue smoking. Another would be that unmarried people are more likely to continue smoking. This would help me target my marketing efforts to lower-income, unmarried individuals, which would aid in my messaging and outreach.

Data such as this are vital to check your assumptions and make informed decisions. Pew Research Center does a great job at providing timely, informative data with great visuals you can use in your own reports.

How America Gives

How America Gives is a massive project by the Chronicle of Philanthropy that catalogs charitable giving in our country. They provide a very useful interactive map where you can zoom in to specific zip codes, compare giving ratios (percentage of Adjusted Gross Income that was given to charity) and giving over time.

These images are again from my hometown, and show the giving data from my home zip code (02906).

The tool even allows you to drill down into various income brackets to see the giving ratios specific to each income bracket. As a development professional, you could use this data to target a mailing campaign or even choosing the location of a fundraiser or event.

Interested in data? I recommend all nonprofits take a look at Tableau, a world-class data visualization software. Through their foundation, they have a strong commitment to the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits can get a free version of the software as long as they fulfill certain requirements.

Don’t shoot in the dark – use research!

This is a post I wrote for Williams Whittle–check them out!

4 Event Marketing Mistakes Your Nonprofit May Be Making

Every nonprofit needs to pull off great events, but you can’t have a great event without getting people to come, and that requires marketing. You don’t need a big budget for marketing, but you do need to spend time planning your outreach. This blog post will help you avoid the biggest pitfalls of a nonprofit marketer.

Trying to accomplish everything in one event

The biggest mistake you can make is to be too general in your event goals and objectives. One event can’t successfully accomplish fundraising, donor engagement, volunteer appreciation, and launching of a new program. Identify the most important goal and objectives for your event, and then plan who the most important audience is to achieve that goal. Once you have those written out, your event planning and your event marketing will be easy!

Expecting people to show up at your event

As a nonprofit staff member, you are so pressed for time that it can be easy to be so focused on planning an incredible event that you overlook making sure people know about it. It’s imperative that when you are putting together a great event, you first think about ways to entice people to come. Think of creative ways to market your special event, featuring activities, foods, or experiences not usually seen at your events.

One of my clients had a fundraising event and hired a chef to make paella. So, their first e-mail invitation had the subject line: Paella and Cupcakes. It had a great open rate, and got many people to attend their event.

Once you have some great taglines and creative incentives, write out a calendar with every marketing strategy and tactic. Then you have a clear course of action to make sure you get a great turnout!

Overly relying on your mailing list

Most nonprofits don’t have an extensive enough audience to rely on for every event. So it’s important to see how you can cross market to other nonprofit audiences. Talk to your partners to see if you can commit to helping each other market events, or see if there’s a nonprofit association who will help posting your event. Also ask your board and volunteers to send out personal invitations to friends and family, further expanding your audience.

Ignoring your attendees after the event

The day after your big event is a wonderful one. You’re bathing in the warm glow of planning a successful gathering, you’re finally able to sleep, and you’re feeling good. Unfortunately, this time is a vital moment to continue marketing.

One client I worked with had an annual event that raised about $80,000. However, it was a luncheon, and they had a fairly high no-show rate. So, I recommended they send three e-mails after the event: one to attendees who donated, one to attendees who didn’t donate, and one to no-shows. This way they were able to capitalize on the energy of the event to get some extra donations. That simple step made them over $2,000 in additional donations.

So, before the event, write e-mails to send to segmented audiences: 1) attendees 2) people who registered, but didn’t come. If it was a fundraising event, remember to segment attendees between those who donated and those who didn’t.

And finally, make sure every person who attended your event is added to your mailing list so they continue to hear about all the great things your organization is doing.

By avoiding these pitfalls, you can ensure that you message reaches as many people as possible and your event is a success!

This is a post I wrote for Williams Whittle. Check them out!

5 Reasons to Invest in Nonprofit Communications

Many of us in communications are competing for unrestricted funding (the birthday cake of the nonprofit budget) and we need to give clear reasons for why our department deserves the resources. At that moment, how isn’t as important. Your boss, board, or donor will want to know the why. Why are we investing in this? Why are we on social media? Why is it important for us to build connections with reporters?

This blog post will give you a list of reasons to invest in communications, either with time or resources. Not all benefits will apply to all nonprofits equally, but some will be key points you can go to your boss or your board about why to invest in communications.

An effective communications department will have three key outcomes: consistent messaging, better storytelling, increased audience. For this post, I will be linking these three outcomes to five aspects of your nonprofit’s work, improving your ROI.



Consistent Messaging– This strengthens your organization’s pitch to get donors and funders. By determine good, effective messaging, you distinguish yourself from the crowd and clarify your purpose and programs.

Better storytelling– We all know the most effective fundraising comes from stories. By developing an effective way to get stories from your front lines to your appeals, you get high quality content more efficiently.

Client Outreach

Consistent messaging– This helps your organization in clarifying what your role is in your community. More people will understand what you do, which will help more people take advantage of what your nonprofit does best.

Increased audience– By investing in outreach programs to connect with your community, you will raise awareness of your organization and develop closer ties with influencers who can connect you to clients. You will also have a bigger audience to pull from when you start a new program or are looking to survey your community.


Consistent messaging: Messaging is key to any advocacy push, and only by using it consistently does it gain traction. If you are running a campaign, having consistent messaging from your organization builds credibility and awareness, aiding your advocacy efforts.

Increased audience: When a nonprofit invests in e-mail, social media, and web, the effectiveness is often in the increased number of people who see the content. This means you are consistently growing the number of people who are already listening to you. And that is what makes your voice move your mission forward- an audience who is listening to you.

Better storytelling: Persuasive advocacy hinges on effective storytelling. Personifying data and budget lines is imperative when you are testifying or writing op-eds. By improving your storytelling, you are building up your stockpile of persuasive stories that help you effect your mission.


Consistent messaging: Over time, consistent messaging pays off in a big way. When your organization is clear about what it does, it attracts the right types of job candidates and proves stability and focus, which is what good employees strive for.

Crisis Response

Increased audience: When your organization is putting money into building your newsletter list and website visitors, you’re also preparing for a crisis. This could be a last-minute event attendance push, an executive transition, or a city council vote. Consistent, effective communication builds your audience (including reporters), providing you with a highly valuable resource in the times when you need it most.

Consistent messaging: Consistent messaging is key to building trust with your audiences. By using consistent messaging, you deliver on your promises about who your organization is and what it does, giving your audience a reason to stand by you through tough times.

This is not at all an exhaustive list, but it does give you a start to come up with a convincing (and accurate) argument for why your nonprofit should invest in communications. Good luck!

I originally wrote this post for Williams Whittle. They are awesome. 

The Missing Link in your Storytelling Strategy

It’s easy to find advice on how to write the perfect story. We’ve all read those blogs and we’ve attended those webinars. But the truth is, writing the story is just one piece of the puzzle.

Every story has a lifecycle. Collection, writing, editing, sharing. And this process takes an enormous amount of time.

What do you do after it’s written and shared? How do you make sure that you’re using the story effectively? Or that in a few years, you can revive it to do an update? How do you make sure you’re not retelling one or two stories over and over again?

If you’re asking any of those questions, you need a storytelling strategy.

This strategy (which hopefully fits in your communications plan) should make the most out of every story you produce. It makes sure you aren’t retelling the same, tired tales over and over, but it also ensures you aren’t producing one-hit wonders that you never use again.

The key aspect of this strategy is to have a place to keep your stories (And no, it’s not your blog or your website). It’s a place where all your stories are catalogued to easily copy and paste, tailor to different audiences, and even filter depending on demographic data pertinent to your clients.

It’s called a Digital Story Bank, and you need one. Using this spreadsheet, you’ll be able to save time and increase the efficacy of your stories.

This is a simple Excel document that allows you to collect all your stories in one place, customize each story depending on audience, and filter your stories based on crucial data. It’s fully customizable and doesn’t require any new software. Just a simple solution made by someone who’s worn all the hats. And you can download it for free.


Increase efficiency by saving long- and medium-length stories to reuse again and again


Make each story more effective by customizing it for three core audiences and goals


Use drop downs to help you filter stories based on crucial information on demographics, saving you valuable time when grantwriting

Visit my Free Digital Story Bank page to download it. While it won’t completely create your storytelling strategy, it will give you a place to start. If you need more help creating one, drop me a line. I’d be thrilled to help your best stories get to your most important stakeholders.

Should your Nonprofit Be on Instagram?

Nonprofit-instagramInstagram has become an effective outlet for many nonprofits, including UN Foundation, To Write Love on Her Arms, and the ASPCA. But many nonprofits have struggled with the platform, finding little success in their hard work.

As a nonprofit, you have limited time and resources. So, I encourage you to ask yourself: is Instagram a good fit for my organization’s needs? Ask yourself these three questions to determine whether or not it’s the right decision for your organization.

Is your audience on Instagram?

Before you decide to spend time on a communications channel, you should always first consider which audience you are trying to reach. So, first do some research on who is on the platform, and if your target markets are there.

Here is some information to get you started. In 2015, Pew Research Center did a report on Instagram demographics, and found some useful information for nonprofit marketers:

  • 31 percent of women and 24 percent of men regularly use Instagram to like, share, and post.
  • Among teenagers ages 13 to 17 years-old, 23 percent of girls and 17 percent of boys use Instagram.
  • 55 percent of all online 18- to 29-year olds in the U.S. are using Instagram, as opposed to only four percent of adults over 65 years of age.
  • 32 percent of online adults who live in urban areas are using Instagram. A little further out in the suburbs, you can find 28 percent of users, and way out in the country, a mere 18 percent of Instagram users.
  • Instagram has 500 million users, 300 million of whom use the social channel every day, but only 20% of Instagram users are located in the United States, constituting about 89.4 million users.

To sum up all that information, Instagram tends to be young and urban. And while many donors are older, what is your organization doing to cultivate the next generation of donors? Instagram may be a good way to start engaging them now to develop that pipeline.

Does your organization have great visual content?


from CDN-Webimages

We all know cats rule the internet. There are lots of reasons for this, not the least of which is that people love seeing pictures of them. And if all nonprofits were cat-focused, the sector would be dominating the Insta-sphere.

But as we know, lots of nonprofits don’t naturally create awesome visual content. When I worked for a capacity building organization, I quickly found out that I could only post so many pictures of meetings and trainings before my content got stale. And the same will go for many association, advocacy, grantmaking, training, and health-focused nonprofits.

If you’re in this category, right off the bat you know that you’re going to spend extra time coming up with visual content. You’re going to need to be creating images with statistics, quotes, or even putting together a photo shoot to get high-quality pictures to save for later. It’s not going to be easy, but you will get the hang of it. Don’t forget that content can definitely be useful down the road and you can also use it on your other platforms.

Now, if your nonprofit is a zoo, museum, or animal shelter, then you will probably not need to worry about content. As long as you have access to take the photos, you will have lots of content at your finger tips, ready to post.

Do you have the time for Instagram?

Even if your nonprofit has high-quality, daily content that you can share, you’re still going to need to dedicate some significant time to your Instagram channel.

Depending on how easy it is for you to generate good content, I would budget 3-5 hours per week. Once you get the hang of it, you could whittle that number down, but start with that as an estimate.

To make it as effective as possible, you’re going to need to do the following:

  • Create and edit images
  • Post at least once per day
  • Use 5-10 hashtags per post
  • Test the best time to post
  • Engage on other pages every day

Each of these steps is essential to an effective Instagram presence. Do you have the time for all of it? If not, maybe doubling down on an existing channel is a better use of your time.

I hope this has helped you determine whether or not your organization should start an Instagram account! Have other ideas? Share them on Twitter @williamswhittle or @ahcarney.

This blog post originally appeared on Williams Whittle’s website.